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Primary Education News
News The bell has rung for Denmark's 'model' teaching system | Nicola Witcombe
Danish teachers are back in the classroom after a four-week industrial dispute, but their working week has changed for ever
A four-week lockout of teachers from schools in Denmark has come to an end. In central Copenhagen, where I live, my daughter and her classmates gleefully cycled to school on their first day back. The month-long closure has led to schools being valued even more highly by the more than 556,000 pupils and about 50,000 teachers who were affected.
The unprecedented lockout occurred because of an industrial dispute between the Local Authorities Association (KL) – backed by the centre-left government – and the Danish Teachers' Union (DLF). The standoff marks an end of the so-called "Danish model". This model refers to the labour market here, which is largely governed by collective agreements rather than legislation. It is also characterised by employers and trade unions being relatively equal in negotiations and the parties being accustomed to reaching agreements without the need for the government to step in.
The dispute arose because the main teachers' union did not want to sign up to a new collective agreement put forward by KL, which sought to change their working week. This led to KL barring teachers from their places of work without pay from 2April. The Danish model suffered a further blow when parliament then passed a law that decided the terms and conditions of Danish teachers ostensibly without consulting them. The DFL argues that the lockout was premature and heavy-handed and the law unfairly one-sided in favour of the local authorities.
On the face of it, the disagreement has been about the amount of time Danish teachers have to prepare lessons. Prior to the dispute, they taught a maximum of 25 hours per week and the rest of their 37-hour week was spent doing preparation or other duties. KL wanted to change this so that local headteachers could agree preparation and classroom time individually with their teachers depending on the specific needs of the school and individual classes.
This may sound sensible, but the underlying dispute is more ideological. Danish kids usually split their day between school from about 8am to 1pm and then an after-school club where they get to do what they want: theatre, play board or computer games, cook etc. There is a movement to extend the school day, giving less time for "free" play, which is something the Danes have always prioritised. Generally, the teachers are against this approach, as well as being against the proposed changes for their working week, which is viewed as a preliminary step to making the school day longer in the future. They want to enshrine their right to a specific length of preparation time in a national agreement, rather than leaving it to local heads of school who may be pressurised by budget considerations. They have not been successful in this demand.
At the start of the lockout, parents were faced with the prospect of no school and not knowing when it would start again. It was practically awkward and difficult for the children. As a mother of three, I took turns looking after other people's children and arranged activities from day to day. Some families went on impromptu holidays or were kind enough to arrange activities for whole classes daily. Other children accompanied their parents to work or attended hurriedly laid-on extra classes at sports' clubs.
But it hasn't all been negative, as people have asked whether the lockout has strengthened our ability to work together . One listener on The Word is Yours radio programme said it was a good thing that parents are more involved in the everyday lives of their children, not treating school "like one, big babysitter". There is a risk in Denmark, where both parents tend to work full-time, that the state has too much influence on how children are brought up. For older children with approaching exams and those with special needs, however, the lockout has had more serious consequences; one ninth grader we know has an exam equivalent to a GCSE in a week-and-a-half.
But what about our teachers? Most of them appear to be delighted to get back to work, despite the general opposition to the agreement forced through by the government. They spent a month trying to mobilise support led by their trade union and used Facebook and email to show us that they were against the action taken by KL. Some designed flyers pronouncing "Free Children Play Best" and spoof music videos . One of the best, the Lockout Kings, describes the disagreement as a "fucked-up, shit conflict" (in Danish) as three cool teachers bang on the door of their school.
Well, they've managed to get back in, even if not on the right terms.